Mitt Romney, Capitalism, and the Meaning of Success

The other day, I wrote that I simply can’t bring myself to vote for Mitt Romney. In the piece, I cited his dreary conventionalism and unyielding devotion to efficacy and business-like administration at the expense of traditional American philosophical concepts such as liberty and individual rights. A number of comments took particular exception to this part of my piece:

Political philosophy is baffling to Mitt Romney because his lifeblood is efficacy, not ideas. People who work their way up the ladder of success like Romney has are too busy “being successful” to contemplate meaning and vision. They do what’s expected of them, and they do it devilishly well…He wants to be an elected official because, well, it’s what successful people do…Romney wants to be president because it’s the final check-box on his sublimely perfect resume.

Several commenters thought that I was “attacking Romney for being successful.” One accused me of attacking him from the left.

But I don’t begrudge him his financial success, and I’m certainly not going after him from the left. Rather, my feelings are similar to something Bill Kristol wrote the following day:

Watching Mitt Romney’s victory speech in Illinois didn’t reassure me about his chances against President Obama…Romney’s remarks consisted basically of the claim that the business of America is business, that he’s a businessman who understands business, and that we need “economic freedom” not for the sake of freedom but to allow business to fuel the economy.

Kristol is right to fret about this. Mitt Romney doesn’t really seem to understand the beauty of the American project, and can conceptualize “success” only in terms of making money and checking off boxes. I have no problem with making money — indeed, I encourage it! — but there’s more to success in life — and politics — than profits and efficacy. It’s not conservative to obsess about money. Capitalism is good fundamentally because it allows individuals to be, in Milton Friedman’s famous summation of the system’s virtue, free to choose — not merely because it allows them to accumulate lots of stuff. If conservatism has been reduced to the manic accumulation of money, count me out.

I don’t think that’s what conservatism is about, though. Like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, I believe that the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism: maximizing the freedom of the individual from government control. Mitt Romney loves business, not markets. No lover of the free market heartily exclaims his love of mandates, or spends his time wondering how the government can get everyone health insurance.

We’re rapidly reaching the point where our nation must ask itself whether it is content to simply spiral into fiscal insanity — and the problem is not that “government isn’t run like a business.” The problem is our nation’s obsession with instant gratification and the idea that we can get something for nothing. The last generation has betrayed my generation and saddled us with crushing debt. Romney’s record and public statements demonstrate that he is fundamentally unserious about changing the culture in Washington — and I’m done compromising on so important an issue that it threatens our nation’s continued existence as we know it.

Alex Knepper